NOVAsia Editors’ Take: K-pop scandal reveals troubling truth about sexism in Korea

K-pop star Seungri. Central figure in a scandal that is rocking Korean society. Photo: ABC News

A word from the editor-in-chief

I say Korea and you say K-pop. Considering the size of the country, the South Korean brand of catchy, upbeat pop with well-coordinated videos is one of the most prominent musical trends in the world. I willingly admit I have never understood the appeal. But the thing about K-pop is that it is not just about K-pop. As the following commentaries of some of NOVAsia’s editors – all women – will show, underneath the saccharine surface, there are secrets that reveal a bitter truth about misogyny, sexism, and exploitation.

NOVAsia has published extensively about women’s issues before, in Korea and elsewhere. It is my hope that this student magazine can serve as a platform for students’ voices, and if it can serve as a platform for women’s voices as well, then all the better.

Joel Petersson Ivre, Editor-in-Chief


A Disturbing Trend

K-pop star Seungri has retired from Big Bang in response to allegations of corruption, soliciting prostitution and tax evasion. YG Entertainment’s stock prices went plummeting, and more celebrities are discovered to be involved in the scandal. Jung Joon-young is officially a suspect in hidden camera sex videos sharing, and Yong Jun-hyung, another singer involved, left Highlight, a widely popular K-pop group, after it had been brought to light that he had been aware of the illegal activities.

The center of the scandal lies in a group chat on popular Korean messaging app KakaoTalk, shared by several (some still unnamed) celebrities and corporate executives. In this chat, illicit and illegal videos were shared and there were mentions about “sleeping pills” given to women in order to facilitate sex. In separate KakaoTalk conversations it was revealed that Seungri, in order to procure financial benefits, offered sexual services from various women to the executives. The extent to which the services were consensual on the women’s side remains unknown. The points, remarks and phrases used in the conversations were, frankly speaking, disgusting, and objectified women. The story has now been covered by BBC, CNN and other international media outlets, making it a part of the global discourse on corruption and sex-related crimes.

The scandal comes as a shock to many dedicated fans of the Korean entertainment industry, but also highlights issues of corruption and misogyny that have grown increasingly salient in South Korea in recent years: the impeachment of Park Geun-hye and the arrest of Samsung vice chairman Lee Jae-yong uncovered still pervasive misconduct of people in power whereas the recent flood of spy cam pornography incidents exposed widespread harassment of women in public places. And yet still in this whole blow-up, it is a male journalist who uncovered the unspeakable situation. The victims are all nameless women, whose voices remain unheard. If we compare this to the MeToo movement in America where women spoke up and took a stance against sexual harassment, South Korea is taking just another small step towards justice for the victims.

Martyna Posluszna, Editor


“You can do anything if you’re rich”

It’s scary to be a woman in South Korea. You wouldn’t think so, considering that Seoul is ranked at number 14 among the safest cities in the world, according to the 2017 Safe Cities Index. Before I moved here, I used to travel around the country on vacations and never felt scared even when I stayed out late at night. But since moving to Seoul, paranoia has set in. The spycam issue, for one, meant that I could no longer go into public washrooms without the fear that there would be a hidden camera somewhere in the cubicle. And that’s just one of the many realities of everyday life for women here.

When news about the Seungri scandal broke, I was not surprised. I’ve been a part of the K-pop fandom since 2005 and have worked on K-pop concerts backstage. I’ve personally experienced the outrageous behavior of K-pop celebrities. The extent of the scandal was still shocking but what was even more shocking to me was how some international fans insisted on their idol’s innocence, blindly standing by him and rallying for other fans to show support for the fallen idol, even if he ends up being proven guilty. It really made me realize how powerful the influence of K-pop is. Why should we pardon the crimes of celebrities? If anything, shouldn’t they receive harsher punishment precisely because they are public figures?

This scandal is above and beyond just being a “K-pop scandal.” It’s about how people are committing crimes and believing they can get away with them because they have the “backing” of people in authority. It’s about how the people who are supposed to protect the citizens are hurting them instead. A Korean friend once told me that “Korea is a great place to live in if you have money. Because it is a country where you can do anything if you’re rich.”

Amylia Zainal, Web-designer


A sad reality

Like most high profile cases, when a scandal breaks and the public reacts, the police is determined to bring justice to the situation. However, in the case of many Korean women who have reported assaults, whether physical or cyber in nature, justice hasn’t been so swift. The public feels momentary rage which disperses with the turn of a news cycle.

Living in South Korea for just a short period of time, I have heard the warnings time and time again: spy cams in public washrooms, date rape drugs in clubs, and revenge porn are all regretfully prevalent.

What most international K-Pop fans don’t understand is that this is an everyday reality for every Korean woman, as she tries to navigate life in her own country. The overt sexualisation of women reduces them to objects and the lack of sexual education adds to the skewed relationship between men and women.

Maybe through the global sensationalization of this case, South Korea will be forced to deal with this issue, not just for those who were affected by it, but for all women living in South Korea.

I believe that unless the cultural and social roots of the problem are excavated, there is no police investigation or public policy that can fully transform the sad state that South Korea finds itself in.

Suhena Mehra, Editor


What must be done

Drugs, sex, alcohol, and gambling. Those four words have seemed so far away from the traditional expectations on Korean idols, who are supposed to be clean, innocent, and sober. But, Seungri from BigBang committed all four sins at once and shocked South Korea. When Japanese tabloid magazine Friday revealed his first sex scandal in 2012, the South Korean public was surprised for sure, but not as much as now. He seemed to be a forever Oppa for their fans as a successful businessman and a member of Big Bang. But this time, Seungri is not alone. His closest friend, singer Jung Joon-young, who collected illegal videos and distributed files to his friends with his so-called “golden phone.”

The whole incident brought about concerns for female safety in South Korea. While I was researching my previous piece, it frightened me that most digital sex crimes were committed by people close to the victim. That means there may be a Jung Joon-young living next door. The Burning Sun incident is not merely a moral hazard of entertainers who shared a toxic view of women. I cannot even imagine how much further this social corruption goes.

President Moon Jae-in’s government has been aiming to make peace with the Korean government’s past wrongdoings, such as the suppression of the May 18 democratic uprising in Gwangju in 1980. Koreans are often told that “there is no future for those who forget the past.”

I therefore hope that there will be a thorough investigation into Seungri, his accomplices, and the Burning Sun nightclub.

This Korean scandal shall not become another shameful Korean past.

Minhye Park, Editor